Out and About

Activists gather in Denver to discuss opt-out strategy

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Roshan Bliss, an organizer from the Colorado Student Power Alliance, takes notes during a work session Saturday at the United Opt-Out conference in downtown Denver.

Opponents of high-stakes standardized tests are gathering en masse this weekend in Denver to develop their strategy.

Organized by Colorado-based nonprofit United Opt-Out, the event, which will feature keynote speakers from around the county and working groups, is billed as the first of its kind.

“If this works, we’ll take it on the road,” said Peggy Robertson, one of the organization’s leaders.

While a small number of parents have always opted their children out of state standardized tests — about 1 percent here according to the Colorado Department of Education — the movement appears to be gaining traction.

Last fall, the Douglas County Public Schools Board of Education hosted a series of town hall forums to discuss “testing madness.” The board later drafted legislation to allow whole school districts the ability opt-out of the state’s standardized tests. That legislation has since been amended to create a testing panel to investigate the amount and efficacy of the state’s testing requirements.

And this spring, while student began to take the TCAP portion of this year’s standardized tests, schools around the state wrestled with how to reconcile state law, which requires all students to be tested, and the parental rights that opponents of the test they believe they have to opt-out.

How many students have and will be opted-out of the state’s standardized tests this year, a measurement of how effective the grassroots argument has come, won’t be known until later this summer when results are released. But some districts estimated as much as 30 percent of students would be opted out, according to one state official.

Schools and districts who do not test at least 95 percent of their students are penalized by the state. The department uses the results from the tests to measure school effectiveness. And soon, teacher evaluations will also rely heavily on the results of these tests too.

Supporters believe the tests hold educators accountable.

“Testing is designed to help us know how students, the system and the schools are performing,” said Scott Laband, president of Colorado Succeeds, a nonprofit coalition of business leaders that support education reform. “They tell us where we stand today and what we need to improve on. We haven’t seen enough improvement [yet in our schools]. And the data shows us there is a need for continuous improvement.”

Chalkbeat reporter Nic Garcia is at the opt-out conference. Below are his live, unedited updates:

Three takeaways

By time the three-day United Opt-Out conference ended Sunday evening, pads of poster-sized paper had been filled and scribbled over with goals, priorities, platitudes, and action.

Leaders of the movement, several of them teachers, are now combing through everything and lending support where they can as they would to a student grappling with a difficult text or math equation.

The conference, in and of itself, was a big first step for the opt-out movement. Once a loose network of concerned teachers and parents connected by chatrooms and social media, it’s on its way to having clear(-ish) defined strategies and goals.

What specific actions the opt-out movement will take next are unknown. And whether those actions will have any impact on the lawmakers and decision-makers is even muddier.

In the meantime, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s three big takeaways from the United Opt-Out Conference:

    • Passion isn’t a strategy — The question hanging over the three-day conference was how the grassroots movement could sustain itself. United Opt-Out, the organization behind the event, is run by a group of six volunteers who have full-time jobs, and organizers say there’s no clear funding mechanism. The aim of the conference was to develop a network and clear next steps that included action — not just more dialogue. But action, especially for novice activists, can be a daunting task. Leaders consistently reminded those new to organizing to keep it simple. How invested the rest of the movement is in creating change and whether they’ll heed the advice of their leaders remains to be seen.
    • Tangible alternatives that are scalable — Some leaders who have been part of the anti-testing movement for years (in some case decades) acknowledge there’s a need to come up with alternatives to the high-stakes tests and standardization they seek to undermine. The data garnered from the tests has proven, as one conference attendee put it, that schools can be “racist” and “classist.” One of the strongest arguments proponents of testing make is that the exams have served to expose the inequities that exist in an education system that often fails to educate low-income and at-risk students compared to their affluent peers. Whether the movement can come up with something that can satisfy a system that has become increasingly hungry for data and do a better job at providing equity for all students will be what turns a movement into a revolution.
    • Shades of beige — The answer, or at least part of the answer, to both aforementioned issues depends on the movements ability to reach out to communities of color, English language learners, and poor families. At one breakout session a facilitator asked for volunteers to discuss how the movement could recruit those populations. No one immediately volunteered. Those at-risk communities have reaped reward of better schools because of accountability-based reforms, supporters of standardized tests claim. The success of the opt-out movement will largely hinge on how the opt-out movement will present its argument to those communities. As organizer Peggy Robertson put it, networking with other communities across Colorado has been the organization’s biggest challenge.

In their own words

Programing note

1:01 p.m.: Most of the conference has taken a break for lunch. When they return at 1:30 p.m. the six working groups will present their work to the larger conference. They’ll also be discussing direct actions the group can take in Colorado. That portion of the conference is closed to media. However, we’ll be posting some video and takeaways later.

Sunday morning breakout sessions

Melissa Clark, a Denver parent, discusses possible actions she can take to share information about the opt-out movement and how it relates to human rights. Clark was one of about 120 participants at a opt-out conference in Denver this weekend.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Melissa Clark, a Denver parent, discusses possible actions she can take to share information about the opt-out movement and how it relates to human rights. Clark was one of about 120 participants at a opt-out conference in Denver this weekend.

11:26 a.m.: Many involved in the modern education reform movement like to say their work is the civil rights issues of the day. But for some at the opt-out conference, their work is a human rights issue.

Civil rights are governed by lawmakers, while human rights are not, said Sam Anderson of New York. He works with the Coalition of Public Education.

The working group on civil rights is working toward specific actions that can be taken in Denver. But there’s a lot of apprehension and fear, Anderson said.

“I’m inspired, but overwhelmed,” said Denver parent Melissa Clark. “It’s huge. The [movement] is a lot bigger than I thought it was going to be.”

The group agrees they need to build a counter narrative to the education reform movement they oppose. Can Clark design a pamphlet to distribute to her friends or other parents at her school? Can she canvas a neighborhood? Can she network with the media?

Clark takes a deep breath and looks over her carefully-taken and detailed notes.

Another person at the table mentions her moms’ group. Start there, she suggests.

Clark nods and smiles. She can do that.

“A lot of [my friends] are on the cusp of deciding what to do,” Clark said.

The next action, Anderson and others from out of town suggest to Clark, only needs to be small and local.

Sunday morning keynote

10:25 a.m.: Angela Engel, one of the Colorado’s opt-out movement’s early leaders, evangelized for the crowd this morning. She linked the education reform movement, which puts a huge emphasis on standards, testing and accountability, to big tobacco and other propaganda campaigns throughout history. She recalled for the crowd how some doctors endorsed cigarettes even though they knew that smoking was harmful.

The reformers’ claim to be doing their work to help disadvantaged children is a red herring, she said.

“People don’t matter [to them],” she said. “The data matters. The power matters.”

And their tactics aren’t working. She said there are more at-risk students and remediation rates are climbing in Colorado.

She was blunt: “This is work difficult. But it’s difficult because it’s important.”

The crowd, which is visibly smaller than yesterday, is now working through the final hours of the conference in small groups. They’ll be presenting their goals, actions and takeaways later this afternoon.

Why some people support standardized tests

9:49 a.m.: Leading up to this weekend’s conference, we asked the Colorado Children’s Campaign, one of Colorado’s largest education advocacy organizations to share their point-of-view. Here’s what they had to say regarding opting-out and standardized tests:

The Colorado Children’s Campaign supports the rights of parents to choose what is best for their children, and also want to ensure students of every background have every chance to succeed in school.

We support assessments that give us feedback on how our schools are performing for every child. Advocates have worked for a long time to ensure that all students, regardless of ability, race, ethnicity, income or any other background, are included in all aspects of the school—including assessments. Parents and taxpayers need a complete picture of how schools are performing and serving all students.

History has shown us that without policies that explicitly ensure all students have access to the same high standards and opportunities to measure levels of understanding we will not have a fair and equitable education system. The same high standards should be set for every child, and parents and educators can ensure that children of all backgrounds have every chance to meet those standards with the appropriate curricula and adaptations for assessments needed for students with special needs or those learning English as a second language.

We agree that it’s important to examine how much time students spend being assessed throughout the year. Formative and summative assessments both have distinct roles and provide valuable feedback to children, educators, parents and schools. Finding that balance as we move into a new system of high standards and aligned assessments should be a priority.

Without question, families are right to require the district to prove their child’s data is secure. Districts that have piloted advanced testing and evaluation systems have ensured the implementation of these important advances have been overseen by advisory councils comprised of parents, teachers, principals, business and community leaders and experts. Why would we deny our children and our children’s educators the same useful technologies most of us rely on daily? We need to embrace the real reforms we say we want.

Providing a high quality education for all of our kids is a big task. When we face challenging tasks in life, we take advantage of the incredible technology advances we have come to rely on. If we want a better education for all our kids, we have to start making the same choices to embrace change, instead of letting fear prevent us from moving forward.

Fox coverage

9:43 a.m.Here’s a report from KDVR’s Kent Erdahl on this weekend’s conference.


Saturday afternoon keynote

5 p.m.: Keynote speaker Ricardo Rosa just finished and is taking questions from the audience. His speech touched on many of the regular themes heard among opt-outers.

“Standardized testing has become morally obscene,” he said. “It needs to be interrupted.”

However, as a person of color, his speech did bring a unique perspective, especially to the mostly white audience.

He suggested the reform efforts often tied to standardized tests negatively impact poor students.

The opt-out movement, he said, needs to reach out to parents of color. What’s more, he said, is the movement needs to go where those parents are.

“You need to move in those spaces with them and be comfortable there,” he said.

He also argued, answering a question from an audience member, that the movement should cross boundaries beyond just education.

“We should be struggling against the prison industrial-complex and immigration [issues],” he said.

The opt-out conference continues Sunday with a keynote from Angela Engel. In the afternoon, all six working groups will present to the rest of the conference. Our coverage will resume at about 9 a.m.

Saturday afternoon breakout session

4 p.m. Participants in the opt-out movement have many different reasons why they don’t like standardized tests. Some fear for their students’ data; others do not believe in the high-stakes approach. The list can go on and is very complex.

What maybe longer and even more nuanced is what they want in place of the current standardized testing model. Whether they’ll be able to come to any consensus on an alternative to testing may be the ultimate assessment of the movement.

A group of about 15 participants at the United Opt-Out conference in Denver filled sheets of poster-sized paper with priorities and alternatives to standardized testing. They did identify four priorities including: building out the movement, identifying partners and schools already within the system that could join the movement, dispelling myths of negative consequences for opting-out, and diversifying the movement.

But the conversation, while passionate, sometimes lacked focus. Mini-debates on whether assessments were needed at all,  if portfolios were a plausible solution, and how to hold teachers and schools accountable, if at all, without high stakes broke out.

One member of the group, Monty Neill, suggested there had to be some standard measurement to make sure schools, especially those who serve marginalized communities, are helping their students learn. But those measurements should be closer to the schools, he said.

“I don’t think it’s simple, but networks of schools can do it,” he said. “Societies can.”

But Neill’s idea was a non-starter for several members of the group.

“I don’t want tests,” Neill said. “I want information.”

Recognizing the working group was too big to discuss all of the solutions they’d need to come up with the group decided to break into smaller groups of three or four people to discuss one of the identified priorities.

Opt-out activist and author Angela Engahl discusses legislation options at the United Opt-Out Conference in Denver.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Opt-out activist and author Angela Engel discusses legislation options at the United Opt-Out Conference in Denver with Douglas County residents Tamil Coyle, center, and Laura Welch.

2:25 p.m.: This year was the year of moms at the Colorado Capitol, according to Denver Post reporter Lynn Bartels.

And if the moms at the United Opt Out Conference have anything to say about it, they’ll be back.

Six moms gathered around a table at the Denver Athletic Club to discuss how they could help others like them work the back rooms at the Colorado General Assembly and other state legislatures.

The working group, led by opt-out activist Angela Engel, decided they need to create a legislative guidebook, a how-to on everything from how to contact elected officials to mobilize testimony for a bill.

Moms need to know how to “get a good bill sponsor, write legislation and bring together testimony,” Engel said.

They also said model legislation on issues like parents’ rights and withdrawing from the Common Core State Standards, a set of national standards adopted by 45 states, was needed.

Before leaving the table, Engel also suggested Colorado moms need more representation at the General Assembly.

“There are future legislators here at this table,” she said. “If we’re looking for leadership — it’s us.”

Saturday morning breakout session

Diane Anderson, a Denver Public Schools employee, takes notes while Kris Nielsen, a New Mexican author, leads a discussion on the influence of corporate reform on standardized testing.
Diane Anderson, a Denver Public Schools employee, takes notes while Kris Nielsen, a New Mexican author, leads a discussion on the influence of corporate reform on standardized testing.

12:45 p.m. After Sahlberg’s keynote, participants at the United-Opt Out conference broke out into one of six working groups. One, titled “Corporate Ed Reform 101,” had participants from Ohio, New Mexico and Iowa. Denver parent Stacey Johnson also participated. The group suggested the opt-out movement needs an umbrella organization with a strong digital presence that smaller organizations, like SPEAK Cherry Creek, could refer too.

“Everything needs to be in one place,” another parent said. “If information is hard to find, some parents will give up.”

Being an opt-out parent can also be lonely, the working group agreed. Having a digital community parents can access for support would be beneficial.

Most of the working groups have taken a break  for lunch. When they return, their task is to formulate goals and develop strategies.

“We’ve never done this before,” said Carmen Scalfaro, a grad student from Cincinnati, Ohio. “Coming up with something new is hard to do.”

Saturday morning keynote

Finish educator Pasi Sahlberg speaks at the United Opt-Out conference in Denver.
PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg speaks at the United Opt-Out conference in Denver.

10:26 a.m.: Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg is speaking. His morning keynote was interrupted by a fire alarm.

He told the audience the United States needs to let go of its global competition in education and focus nationally on equity for all of its students.

He also suggested there should be more women lawmakers in the U.S. That played well with the moms.

10:53 a.m. Sahlberg says data and tests not innately bad; for example, he supports the PISA tests, an international measure of how much students around the world know.

11:05 a.m. Citing data from the PISA tests, Sahlberg says the U.S. is actually doing well and is close to the international average on achievement and equity. “It’s a good place to be,” given how complex the nation is, he said. But if the U.S. wants to improve on a global scale it needs to focus on closing the current achievement gap. The current strategy of raising standards and expectations, is backward, he said. That strategy will only widen the gap.

11:13 a.m. Sahlberg suggests most U.S. policies are contrary to one another. His example goes like this: The U.S. wants schools to innovate, through programs such as the federal grant competition Race to the Top. But, he argued, standards kill creativity. And you can only have innovation if you have creativity and freedom. Freedom can only exist in a safe environment. And there is no safe environment in U.S. education policy because of high-stakes standardized tests.

11:43 a.m. “That’s the hardest thing I’ve had to do,” said organizer Peggy Robertson cutting off Shalberg’s presentation. This afternoon, she said, working groups will be goal setting and developing action plans for teachers, parents, students and other interested parties. They’ll present plans tomorrow.

help wanted

Will third time be a charm? Tennessee searches again for online testing company

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen answers questions Thursday at a news conference about changes to Tennessee's testing program. The changes were supported by Dale Lynch (right), executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

After firing one testing company and hiring another in a pinch, Tennessee plans to launch a fresh search this fall for vendors — forging ahead with its switch to computerized exams, albeit more slowly than initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced Thursday that the state will seek proposals from one or more companies to take over its troubled standardized testing program beginning in the 2019-20 school year. A track record of successful online testing is a must, she said.

Questar, which has handled the job the last two school years, will continue to oversee the state tests known as TNReady this year under an amended contract. Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner said the company plans to pursue the new contract, too.

“We anticipate successful fall and spring administrations and hope to be afforded the opportunity to continue the momentum,” he told Chalkbeat.

McQueen said the state is ordering numerous changes next school year under Questar, including a modified timeline for transitioning from paper to computerized exams.

Instead of following the state’s initial game plan to have most students testing online next year, only high schoolers will stick with computers for their exams in 2018-19. All students in grades 3-8 — some of whom tested online this spring — will take their TNReady tests on paper.

The exception will be Tennessee’s new science test. Because that assessment is based on new academic standards and won’t count toward student grades or teacher evaluations in its first year, students in grades 5-8 will take it online, while grades 3-4 will test on paper. The idea is that the “field test” provides an opportunity for fifth-graders and up to gain online testing experience in a low-risk environment.

Even with technical problems hampering online testing two of the last three years, McQueen made it clear that computerized exams are the future for all Tennessee students if they want to keep pace with their peers nationally.

“Tennessee is one of less than 10 states who still have a paper test in our lower grade levels,” McQueen said during a news conference.

Local school leaders are equally committed to computerized testing, according to Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.   

“We do not want to go back to paper and pencil,” Lynch said. “Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee.”

"Online testing is the way to go, but we need to get it right in Tennessee."Dale Lynch, Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents

All of the changes are in response to the series of technical issues that frequently interrupted testing this year, exasperating students and teachers and prompting an emergency state law that rendered the scores mostly inconsequential for one year.

“Teachers, students and families deserve a testing process they can have confidence in, and we are doing everything possible to meet that responsibility,” McQueen said. “We are always committed to listening and improving, and we’ll continue to do just that.”

Questar is Tennessee’s second testing company since 2016, when the state entered the era of TNReady, a new assessment aligned to new academic standards and billed as harder to game. The switch to computerized testing was part of that package.

McQueen fired North Carolina-based Measurement Inc. after its online rollout failed on the first day of testing and led to the cancellation of most state exams that year. Questar, which had come in second for the contract, was brought on as an emergency vendor for $30 million a year. Questar’s two-year contract ends in November, but McQueen wants an extension in order to complete testing for the 2018-19 school year.

The search for a new vendor — or combination of vendors — could be tricky. Only about a half dozen companies can provide online testing for a state the size of Tennessee. That’s why the state Department of Education’s invitation for companies to submit proposals will be structured so that different vendors can bid on different pieces of the work.

“What we’ve learned over time is that there are few vendors who do all of those components well, but some vendors do some pieces of it much better than others,” McQueen said. “We’re going to look for those who have a track record of success online and who we think can manage our program well.”

The state already has taken a step toward that approach. Last month, McQueen announced that Educational Testing Service, also known as ETS, will take over this year’s TNReady design work, such as devising questions and exam instructions. The change will allow Questar to focus on giving and scoring the test and verifying and reporting the results. (ETS also owns Questar. Read more here.)

The legislature’s fiscal review committee recently approved that change, including $12.5 million to pay for ETS’ services, although state officials expect the extra money will be offset by re-negotiating down the cost of Questar’s current contract.

Next Generation

Colorado adopts new science standards that focus on inquiry, not memorization

Jana Thomas watches the progress of her fourth-grade students as they learn about the effects water and land have on each other at Chamberlin Academy, an elementary school in the Harrison district. (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

New science standards adopted by a divided Colorado State Board of Education call on students to learn by puzzling through problems in the natural world rather than by listening to facts from a teacher.

The new standards, largely based on Next Generation Science Standards already in use in whole or in part in 38 states, represent the most significant change to what Colorado students will be expected to know in this round of revisions to state standards.

The State Board of Education reviews academic standards every six years. That process concluded Wednesday with the adoption of standards in comprehensive health and physical education, reading, writing and communicating, and science. The board had previously adopted new standards in social studies, math, world languages, arts, and computer science, among others. Most of those changes were considered relatively minor.

The new science standards, which were developed based on years of research into how people learn science, are considered a major change. They focus more on using scientific methods of inquiry than on memorization. In a time when we can look up literally any fact on our phones – and when scientific knowledge continues to evolve – supporters of the approach say it’s more important for students to understand how scientists reach conclusions and how to assess information for themselves than it is for them to know the periodic table by heart.

Melissa Campanella, a Denver science teacher, is already using Next Generation-based standards in her classroom. Earlier this year, she described a lesson on particle collisions as an example.

In the past, she would have given a lecture on the relevant principles, then handed her students a step-by-step lab exercise to illustrate it. Now, she starts the same lesson by activating glow sticks, one in hot water, the other in cold. Students make observations and try to figure out what might be behind the differences. Only after sharing their ideas with each other would they read about the collision model of reactions and revise their own models.

Supporters of this approach say students learn the necessary facts about science along the way and understand and retain the material better.

Critics fear that not all classroom teachers will be capable of delivering the “aha” moments and that students could miss out on critical information that would prepare them for more advanced study.

That fear was one reason all three Republican members of the state board voted no on the new standards. They also disliked the way the standards treated climate change as a real phenomenon. Nationally, the standards have drawn opposition from religious and cultural conservatives over climate change, evolution, and even the age of the earth.

Some Democratic members of the board started out as skeptics but were won over by the overwhelming support for the new standards that they heard from science teachers.

Board member Jane Goff, a Democrat who represents the northwest suburbs of Denver, said no one she talked to in her district wanted to keep the old standards.

“Most people expressed outright that they felt comfortable with the amount of resources they have (for implementation), and they were enthused about the possibilities presented here,” she said.

Under Colorado’s system of local control, school districts will continue to set their own curriculum – and that’s one point of ongoing concern even for board members who support the change. The state has very limited authority over implementation.

“If we were a state where we had more control over curriculum, some of those concerns would not be so great that students might not learn certain material,” said board chair Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat.